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Since the earliest days of the Internet, when just a few universities exchanged data at a leisurely pace, nearly all network transmission has been treated equally, no matter what it was, who sent it, or where it was going (other than spam and malware). That’s the nutshell version of net neutrality. “Network neutrality” is sometimes called “Internet freedom” or “Internet openness” and has been a gentleman’s agreement that would prevent cable and phone companies from slowing or blocking some websites while providing special priority to others. As the Internet has expanded, now encompassing email, the World Wide Web, social networking and voice and video services, it has honored that modus operandi. All the content on the Internet was treated equally… until this year.
In late 2010, the FCC issued a 194 page “Open Internet Order”, formally making the long established neutrality practice an official government policy. Just one month later, Verizon Communications challenged that order, arguing that the FCC was not given the right to impose the rules under the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
In January this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against the FCC. The judge noted that since the FCC had determined that internet service providers were “information service providers” in 1992, it could not now attempt to impose common-carrier telecommunication regulations on ISPs. The FCC has elected not to challenge the court’s ruling; instead it has proposed a new set of rules which includes a provision to permit charging “commercially reasonable” prioritization fees by internet service providers. The public will have the opportunity for input on the proposed new rules until the FCC votes at the end of 2014.
Choosing not to wait for a final vote, Netflix has already announced deals with Comcast and Verizon, agreeing to pay undisclosed amounts for the privilege of directly connecting to their internet services and enabling access to the front of the queue. Similar negotiations are in progress with other carriers.
A number of public interest organizations (including the ACLU, Common Cause and more) and trade groups such as the Internet Association (which includes Google, Amazon and Yahoo to name a few) are mounting a concerted effort opposing the new rules due to concerns about freedom of speech issues. Noting that internet service is a monopoly in most areas, they fear that the new rules will eventually enable the ISPs to completely control your access to all information – news, entertainment, email, social media, phone service, financial accounts – as they please, to further eliminate competition and to charge whatever they deem “reasonable.” Few of us will have the option to find an alternative provider.
Two possible remedies are available. The FCC could reclassify internet service providers as a “common carrier”, redefining them as public utilities and thus subject to FCC regulations. Alternatively, congress could enact new legislation authorizing new regulations. Either of these actions will inevitably be vigilantly and vehemently challenged by all the major internet service providers.
Like most observers stuck in the middle, I have no idea how or when this kerfuffle will end. There are powerful forces on both sides of the argument and a great deal of money and influence is at stake. However, I am sure of at least a few things: the resolution will take years to conclude, and we’re all going to pay more for internet service in the end.